For the marvel comics superhero group, see Redeemers (comics).
The "Redeemers" were a political coalition in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction era, who sought to oust the Republican coalition of freedmen, carpetbaggers and scalawags. They were the southern wing of the Bourbon Democrats, the conservative, pro-business wing of the Democratic Party.
In the 1870s, southern Democrats began to muster some political power as former Confederates began to vote again. It was a movement that gathered energy up until the Compromise of 1877, in the process known as Redemption. White Southerners saw themselves as redeeming the South by regaining power. They appealed to scalawags (white Southerners who supported the Republican Party after the civil war and during the time of reconstruction).
More importantly, in a second wave of violence following secret Ku Klux Klan activity, in many states white paramilitary groups affiliated with the Democratic Party conducted intimidation, terrorism and violence against black voters and their allies to reduce Republican voting and turn officeholders out. They worked openly for specific political ends, and often solicited coverage of their activities by the press. Every election from 1868 on was surrounded by intimidation and violence; they were usually marked by fraud as well. In the aftermath of the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872 in Louisiana, for instance, two slates of local officers were initially certified, contributing to the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which more than 100 blacks and three whites were killed in a confrontation over control of parish offices. Thousands of armed supporters of the Democratic candidate in Louisiana fought against state forces and took over the state government offices in New Orleans, retreating only before Federal troops. Six Republican officeholders were turned out in Coushatta, Louisiana and told to leave the state. Before they could make their way, they and five to twenty black witnesses were assassinated by white paramilitary. In 1874 the White League started in the Red River area of Louisiana, with chapters rising across the state, especially in rural areas. Similarly, in Mississippi, the Red Shirts were a prominent paramilitary group that enforced Democratic voting by intimidation and murder. Chapters of paramilitary Red Shirts arose and were active in North and South Carolina as well. They disrupted Republican meetings, killed leaders and officeholders, intimidated voters at the polls, or kept them away altogether.
The Redeemers' program emphasized opposition to the Republican government which they considered to be corrupt and a violation of true republican principles. They also worked to reestablish white supremacy. The crippling national economic problems and reliance on cotton meant that the South was struggling. Redeemers denounced taxes higher than what they had known before the war, when the states had few functions, and planters maintained themselves privately. They wanted to reduce state debts. Once in power, they typically cut government spending; shortened legislative sessions; lowered politicians' salaries; scaled back public aid to railroads and corporations; and reduced support for the new systems of public education and some welfare institutions.
As Democrats took over state legislatures, they worked to strip most blacks and many poor whites of their ability to vote. Blacks continued to vote in significant numbers well into the 1880s, and black Congressmen continued to be elected, albeit in ever smaller numbers, until the 1890s. George Henry White, the last Southern black of the post-Reconstruction period to serve in Congress, retired in 1901, leaving Congress completely white.
In the 1890s, the Democrats faced challenges with the Agrarian Revolt, when their control of the South was threatened by the Farmers Alliance, the effects of Bimetallism and the newly created People's Party. On the national level, William Jennings Bryan defeated the Bourbons and took control of the Democratic Party nationwide.
In the former Confederate South, from 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi, legislatures of ten of the eleven states passed disfranchising constitutions, which had new provisions for poll taxes, literacy and understanding tests, and residency requirements that effectively disfranchised nearly all blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites in the South. Hundreds of thousands of people were removed from voter registration rolls soon after these provisions were implemented. This ensured preventing another Populist-Republican coalition that could threaten the Democrats.
In Alabama, for instance, in 1900 fourteen Black Belt counties had 79,311 voters on the rolls; by June 1, 1903, after the new constitution, registration had dropped to just 1,081. Statewide Alabama in 1900 had 181,315 blacks eligible to vote. By 1903 only 2,980 were registered, although at least 74,000 were literate. From 1900 to 1903, white registered voters fell by more than 40,000, although their population grew. By 1941, more poor whites than blacks had been disfranchised in Alabama, mostly due to effects of the cumulative poll tax. Estimates were that 600,000 whites and 500,000 blacks had been disfranchised.
African Americans and poor whites were totally shut out of the political process and left without representation. Southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing segregation in public facilities and places. As blacks were segregated, millions of people were quickly affected, to devastating effect, and the disfranchisement lasted well into the later decades of the 20th century. They were shut out of all offices at the local and state level, as well as Federal level. Those who could not vote could not run for office or serve on juries, so they were never judged by peers.
While Congress had actively intervened for more than 20 years in elections in the South which the House Elections Committee judged to be flawed, after 1896, it backed off from intervening. Many Northern legislators were outraged about the disfranchisement of blacks and some proposed stripping the South of seats in Congress. Although educated African Americans mounted legal challenges (with many secretly funded by educator Booker T. Washington and his northern allies), the Supreme Court upheld Mississippi's and Alabama's provisions in its rulings in Williams v. Mississippi (1898) and Giles v. Harris (1903).
By the turn of the century, white historians, led by the Dunning School, saw Reconstruction as a failure because of its political and financial corruption, its failure to heal the hatreds of the war, and its control by self-serving northern politicians, such as the people around President Grant. Historian Claude Bowers said that the worst part of what he called "the Tragic Era" was the extension of voting rights to freedmen, a policy he claimed led to misgovernment and corruption. The freedmen, the Dunning School historians argued, were not at fault because they were manipulated by corrupt white carpetbaggers interested only in raiding the state treasury and staying in power. They agreed the South had to be "redeemed" by foes of corruption. Reconstruction, in short, violated the values of "republicanism" and they classified all Republicans as "extremists". This interpretation of events was the hallmark of the Dunning School which dominated most history textbooks from 1900 to the 1960s.
Beginning in the 1930s, historians such as C. Vann Woodward and Howard K. Beale attacked the "redemptionist" interpretation of Reconstruction, calling themselves "revisionists" and claimed that the real issues were economic. The Northern Radicals were tools of the railroads, and the Republicans in the South were manipulated to do their bidding. The Redeemers, furthermore, were also tools of the railroads and were themselves corrupt.
In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois published a Marxist analysis in his Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. His book emphasized the role of African Americans during Reconstruction, noted their collaboration with whites, their lack of majority in most legislatures, and also the achievements of Reconstruction: establishing universal public education, improving prisons, establishing orphanages and other charitable institutions, trying to improve state funding for the welfare of all citizens. He also noted that despite complaints, most Southern states kept the constitutions of Reconstruction for many years, some for a quarter of a century.
By the 1960s, neo-abolitionist historians led by Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner made the struggle of freedmen center stage. While acknowledging corruption in the Reconstruction era, they hold that the Dunning School over-emphasized it while ignoring the worst violations of republican principles — namely denying African Americans their civil rights, including their right to vote
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